I avoid conflict at all cost. Although I can’t see my own mouth when I disagree with someone, I imagine my lips stretched thin over large teeth and closed tight over a very loud laugh. I have the kind of laugh that makes people turn around in restaurants and stare angrily at me, or, as a few weeks ago, move across the restaurant to a completely different table. Recent unpleasant encounters leave me feeling slack and stony-faced and I wonder what visage I present to the world.
Meditation practice has helped me with conflict to some extent. Recently, when people felt it was their duty to tell me they “knew” I wasn’t going to win a community award, I did not feel my lips tense at all. Rather, I smiled and made some kind of small joke and moved away quickly. Why would they say that to me, I would ask in the dark later when I could not sleep.
That same week a group of friends invited me to their monthly dinner group and, although I was still raw from the non-congratulations and advice about what to do as a new kind of loser, I went to the dinner. I brought the problem to the group. It had been an honor to be nominated and to be considered in a field with visual and performing artists. I had a lovely evening sitting with friends who have been with me through my recent transformation from office girl to artist. Why did others feel the need to insist, repeatedly, that they knew I wouldn’t win?
The group considered the question and reminded me of things I could hold on to. We talked about “right speech” and our daily struggles with imperfection, but also impermanence. On this occasion, impermanence is a comfort--this too would pass. I hoped it would pass quickly, but it has not. I am still holding onto the negative rather than the positive. Not the losing, but the thoughtlessness of others.
A friend of mine from the group sent me a note a few days later. The dinner conversation reminded him of a time when we had a lot of conflict in our relationship. We were both going through tough job transitions and handled them in different ways. After feeling I had done all I could, I left my job. After feeling he had done all he could, he continued to stay and tried to be a positive influence on the office culture. At the time, I thought our arguments were about his disappointment in me—that I had somehow given up and that he thought less of me for it. Now I see what he really believed, which I didn’t believe at the time, was that I did have the power to be a positive influence. Perhaps his disappointment was not that I had somehow failed, but that there was potential for success that went unrealized.
In these moments of conflict, it is easy for me to be caught up in my own self-doubt and, sometimes, haunting failures. The former monk with whom I studied meditation would remind our group of the “stories we tell ourselves” about ourselves. When I am the center of the universe, all action seems directed at me. A colleague does not return my “good morning?” Clearly, they are angry at me. A phone call not returned? I must have done something wrong. Someone telling me they knew I wouldn’t win? Of course I’m a loser. I should have never gotten my hopes up.
If I take myself out of the story right now and look at the greater context of what is happening, I see something else. I see a time of unprecedented uncertainty and confusion. Several months ago, many were confident about how the election would turn out. It reminds me of the 2000 election. Of course citizens would vote for the most qualified person. Intelligence would win the day over feeling like we could go drink a beer with the president, right?
Living in Washington, DC, felt surreal at the time. I remember asking friends and family in different parts of the country if they had seen the protests on the news the night before. No one knew what I was talking about because that particular form of revolution was not televised and social media was nonexistent. However, people were protesting the results of the 2000 presidential election outside of the White House and the Vice President’s residence and probably other places, but I don’t remember reading about them in the news. Soon, the Supreme Court settled everything and we carried on. Less than a year later, I remember having to get off the DC Metro because of a panic attack. It was my first subway ride back to work after September 11, and a small delay with the lights off in the subway car and no announcement from the conductor made me afraid something had happened again.
Two weeks after the community award nominees were announced, the first travel ban was attempted. I remember going out to the garage to find two backpacks and started preparing “bug out” bags. This was like what happened before in 2000 and 2001. Surely with all the seemingly spontaneous protests, Martial law wasn’t far behind, and then worse. I thought I could be prepared. I still think I can be prepared.
In the face of this post-election conflict, my mind goes from zero to ninety in milliseconds. In the face of this conflict, surely there will be war. In the face of personal conflict, surely I am the worst of all human beings. And, in the face of all this uncertainty, we need to know we are sure of something. How many articles have we read this week about the “Four things you need to throw away from your refrigerator right now” and “Seven sure-fire ways to get hired”? What started off as click bait serves a new psychological purpose. We want others to give us clear, easy-to-follow directions for how to live this life right now. This life filled with so much confusion and uncertainty. Someone knows they answers, don’t they?
The things we say right now may be unskilled, not thoughtful, and they will unfortunately hurt others, even unintentionally. But behind all of these words, I’m doing my best to remember that statements of absolute fact may be coming from a place of absolute fear and uncertainty. Instead of a smile or a joke, the next time someone tells me they know something for sure, I am going to ask them how they are doing. How they are really doing. And be prepared to listen. The best gift I can give right now is to not walk away, wallowing in my own sensitivity and insecurity. The best gift I can give right now looks like trying to be a positive influence on those around me. The best gift I can give right now is cutting through someone else’s bullshit and bombast and insecurity to tell them it’s okay to not know how this all ends.